They’re the forgotten people of the farm-to-fork movement: the actual farmworkers.
The farm-to-fork spotlight focuses on the region’s boutique farm owners and the fine-dining chefs who turn these ingredients into prized and pricey plates. But none of this would be possible without workers picking our celebrated produce, a grueling job with the bulk of its workers living below the poverty line.
While the well-heeled feasted recently on a $175 dinner on the Tower Bridge and other high-ticket events, California’s farmworkers earn a meager $18,731 annually, according to the California Employment Development Department.
But you won’t find much in the way of fundraisers for farmworkers or other events to show appreciation for their labor, even as the “farm-to-fork” campaign becomes omnipresent around Sacramento.
Fred Ross spent his life fighting for the rights and respect of these farmworkers and addressing other issues of economic equality in the country’s fields and factories. Ross, who died in 1992, is considered a legend in community organizing and the patriarch of a family that continues his spirit of sticking up for the common workers’ rights.
Ross was inducted posthumously into the California Hall of Fame on Wednesday night for his longstanding dedication to social justice.
His name might not have the same kind of marquee value as fellow inductees Francis Ford Coppola, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. Dre. But as a behind-the-scenes community organizer, Ross was a giant.
Ross mentored Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in recruitment efforts and other mobilizing techniques, skills those two would later use when founding the United Farm Workers in 1962.
Ross stood strong with the UFW, becoming its organizing director in 1966 and helping guide the union through its worker strikes and consumer boycotts against large-scale growers and producers.
By then, Ross had decades of experience in activism. In the 1930s, Ross organized migrant worker camps in California’s “Dust Bowl,” including one in Kern County that was fictionalized by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
In the following years, Ross fought to end school segregation in California and helped mobilize Mexican Americans throughout Southern California.
“When he saw little kids starving, he had to do something about that,” said Fred Ross Jr. “When he saw an injustice, he had a passion to do something and stir up others to do the same thing.”
Ross Jr. accepted the California Hall of Fame honors on Wednesday night on behalf of his father. He also has carried on his father’s spirit of community mobilization and fighting for workers’ rights. He stood in solidarity with his father and Chavez when the UFW initiated a boycott and strike at Gallo winery in 1973 over worker contracts.
Ross Jr. now organizes on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, a union based in Vacaville.
The union’s efforts sometimes turn toward the food industry. Stewards from the IBEW 1245 helped support Teamsters in a March drive to organize workers at a Taylor Farms facility in Tracy.
Officially Ross Jr. isn’t affiliated with the UFW now, but he still supports the union. He knows that for all the UFW’s achievements, including securing contracts with grape growers and improving some working conditions, there’s still a need for worker justice in the fields.
Wages remain low and many workers remain vulnerable to the elements. After claims of vineyard workers being mistreated, the UFW called again for a boycott of Gallo wines in 2005.
And following a string of heat-related deaths, it filed a 2012 lawsuit against the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health over failure to enforce regulations to protect workers from heat illness.
“Farmworkers sacrificed blood and jobs for this union, and under very hostile conditions with the most powerful industry in California,” said Ross Jr.
“The vast majority of farmworkers continue to have to work in terrible conditions and without a real voice at the table.”
So, while farm-fresh foods remain a hot commodity in Sacramento and beyond, the fight continues to better protect farmworkers. Ross Jr. remains guided by the spirit of his father to mobilize in the name of what’s right.
“The time is right for his kind of timeless wisdom and lessons in how to create change,” said Ross Jr. “We don’t win these fights in a day.
“We can never give up.”